24 June 2017


I’ve always loved ballads, right from the moment I first became interested in traditional songs. And not just ballads but other story songs as well. It’s always been the story (hopefully allied with a good tune) which has attracted me to a song. Over the years I’ve sung a few shanties, performed a few songs just because they had good choruses, done some protest songs… but I always come back to ballads. 
(It was because of my love of ballads that I was attracted to storytelling which I also do. They go well together - two sides of the same coin.)

At this point let’s consider what a ballad is:
In the pop world it is a slow, quiet love song; but we’re not talking of those.

Everyman’s Dictionary of Music defines it as: “a later but now old-fashioned species of light and sentimental song, generally about love in a moonlit garden, the words of which are by a hack writer set to music by a composer of no merit…” We’re definitely not talking about those!

We are talking about:

“It is the properly narrative songs of substantial length and strong story line that we call ballads.” (From Bert Lloyd’s Folksongs in England.)

“A narrative song with recurrent refrain… from old French balade from old Provencale balada a song accompanying a dance (which comes from the same Latin root as ball).” (From Collins English Dictionary.)

(The link between ballads and dancing is a subject worthy of a whole blog post by itself.)

Throughout history there have been ballads composed on topical subjects by poets and journalists. Most have never been sung and were intended for the page. They are very literary. From about the 18th century onwards ‘broadside ballads’ followed a folk song form and were meant to be sung to popular tunes. They were sold to the general populace for a penny or so and were the pop singles of the day—Maria Marten or The Murder in the Red Barn is reputed to have sold a million copies! Many of those were remembered and became   an integral part of the folk song revival.
The pinnacle of the ballad form though, are the ones which form the basis of the collection put together by Prof Francis James Child, now called ‘Child Ballads’ after him. Many of these were very well known amongst country singers in the early 20th century. Bronson, who compiled tunes to them, listed the most popular:

Barbara Allen
The Outlandish Knight
Lord Thomas & Fair Eleanor
The House Carpenter
The Gypsy Laddie
Lord Bateman
The Golden Vanity
(The only one of those I haven’t sung is the House Carpenter!)

Illustration for The Outlandish Knight
Over the years it has really annoyed me that whenever ballads are mentioned someone has to add the prefix ‘long boring’. They can be long, although many exist in shorter versions, but they are only boring if they are badly performed or performed in the wrong context. You have to pick your time and not do too many one after the other. That is true today and I would bet that it was true in the past as well. I doubt whether the ‘ballad session’ existed amongst 18th century farm workers but Old Fred, or someone else, probably got up and sang The Two Sisters or The Cruel Mother at every Harvest Home. 

It’s become the accepted thing today to sing ballads unaccompanied. Even singers who use instruments on other songs often put them down for a ballad. (This is true on both sides of the Atlantic.) I don’t. I feel that ballads are the songs which can really benefit from accompaniment. If a song is long it needs the added interest and the story lines of most ballads are usually intricate (and often disjointed) so an instrumental break allows time for the story to sink in and a change of scene or character to take place.
In a lot of other traditions in Europe and the Middle East ballads are accompanied. Here is a lovely arrangement of an 18th century Sephardic ballad El Sueno de la Hija del Rey (The Dream of the King’s Daughter) by Greek singer Savina Yannaton. 
I can’t find out much about it but it seems to be a typically  complicated ballad/folk tale plot with the mother and the daughter not getting on!

Probably because many of them are so old ballads are often fragmentary and a cinema continuity person would have a heart attack trying to make sense of them. They often start in the first person and then suddenly switch to the third; we get verses of dialogue without any credit being given to who is saying what… I love that aspect, it allows you to fill in the gaps from your own imagination. Some singers try to fill in the gaps for you though, to complete the story perhaps. I feel this can spoil them. You need the mystery. Each singer is able to make their own story from a ballad by choosing which verses they leave in or omit, or what ideas they stress or play down. 

The latest book from The History Press, publishers of the must-have Folk Tales series, is Ballad Tales. In it 15 or so authors/storytellers have taken a new approach to some of the ballads. You’ll find new takes on the stories of Tam Lyn, Sir Gawain, The Selkie of Sule Skerrie amongst others.

I have taken the little known and rarely sung Willies Lady. It’s a great story but not many people have sung it because it is long and because there is no authentic tune for it. People who do sing it (including Martin Carthy whose version is the best known) usually use the Breton tune Son Ar Chistr’ (the Song of Cider) which was put to it by Ray Fisher.

I called my retelling ‘Nine Witch Locks’ and while writing tried to channel Steven King! Through most of the story I played up the threat and mystery by suggesting things rather than making them explicit and I let the danger build until the denouement. In sung ballads there is often a refrain—I tried to suggest this by including random, almost nonsense phrases which, I hope, add to the mystery and hint at the answers. It’s very different to anything else I’ve done. It is definitely a piece for the page not for telling. I’m pleased with it. I hope you will be too.

The book is available from the Shop page on my web site or, of course, from the publishers. 


2 June 2017


In 1978 I gave up teaching to become a ’folk singer’. I thought I’d never set foot in a school again!

About half of my 10 years as a teacher had been at a school in Nottingham where I was very happy, I got on well with the head and wasn’t restricted as to what and how I should teach. But one day he took me aside and advised me that it was time to think about promotion and as there was no chance of anything coming up internally in the near future I should start looking and applying elsewhere.
I applied for a job at a school in Luton and, although I didn’t get the job I’d applied for (I can’t remember exactly what it was) the head created another post especially for me. On paper it was ‘the correlation of art and drama’. But in practice it wasn’t. The school cared nothing for art or drama or music or any of the things I was interested in. It was also a school ruled by brutality. Corporal punishment was still allowed then and it was used. I saw the head throw boys across the room and at least one member of staff would stand in the corridor and whack children with a slipper as they went by just for the fun of it! 
Pete and Sue 1965: trainee teachers!

I don’t know why they employed me. Eventually I was told that I could use my arty-farty methods if I agreed to have the remedial class. So I did. I suppose  they were already beyond harm! It was a class made up of ordinary not very academic kids, a few with genuine learning difficulties, some naughty boys who weren’t a bit interested in school, and a variety of children who had just arrived in this country and couldn’t speak a word of English. There was no help and no special facilities. But my arty-farty methods worked as well as any others would have and for the few years I was there the same number of children were promoted out of my class into the regular classes as they always had been. I couldn’t live in that atmosphere though. It was absolutely the opposite of everything I’d learned at college when I trained. So I opted out.
The Mansion, Bretton Hall
I trained at Bretton Hall College of Education in Wakefield from 1965-68. It’s now the site of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. All that beautiful landscape was the college grounds where we worked and played. (Some years after I left it was decided that it was surplus to requirements and it stood empty for a decade or so. Now the old Georgian mansion is being transformed into a hotel and conference centre and the more modern buildings are in the process of being demolished.) 

Bretton Hall has a tremendous reputation. Everyone who went there loved it and most of us took on the philosophy of education we were taught. It specialised in Music, Art and Drama and all kinds of well known names, particularly in the acting field, went there over the years.
One of the major things I came out with was the idea that education was for life not just something to get you a job. I remember discussing the idea that by the end of the 20th century working hours would be 2 or 3 days a week for most people—so they needed to have a love of the arts, or crafts or some other creative thing to do in their leisure time. The future then looked very rosy.

Bretton lake where we walked and worked... and courted!
How wrong could we be. Working hours are now longer than ever and education has become a box ticking, target achieving way of getting or keeping a job. Young people’s choice of subject at university often depends on what will earn them the most money, not which subject they love and want to do. The 'arty-farty' has definitely gone.

So I became a wandering minstrel, an itinerant musician going from one gig to another, mainly folk clubs in pub rooms but the occasional weekend festival.
And then one day one of those serendipitous things happened. I played at a folk club near Brighton and the organiser happened to be the head of a local primary school. He put me up for the night and asked whether I had to rush off in the morning and, if not, whether I fancied going in and singing some songs to the kids at his school. He would pay me. It would more or less double my club fee. So, of course I did and I really enjoyed it. Going in as a singer was much different to being a teacher.

From then on it was something I did regularly. 
Pete and Bing Lyle 1995
If I was going to be in an area for a few days I’d contact several schools and see whether they’d like to have me. When I confirmed bookings with clubs I’d ask whether any of their regulars could organise me a school gig as well. I was able to get a lot of work in that way and built up a repertoire of songs, and later stories as well, which went down well. I didn’t set out to teach anything particular, just to give them a memorable experience. Live music, particularly folk music, was something most wouldn’t experience normally. Over the years I built on this and did several long term residencies, and regular visits to particular schools. As well as singing I taught country dances, produced mummers plays, got the children writing songs… all kinds of things. As well as solo work I worked for many years as a duo with Bing Lyle and later with Keith Kendrick. There was a time, around 1990 I guess, when there was so much schools work going that I deliberately downplayed it because I didn’t want to become known as ‘a children’s entertainer’. 

And then it stopped.
Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Creativity

The government suddenly interfered in education and laid down rules. The National Curriculum was introduced. Before you could present something to a class of children you had to write down what Attainment Targets would be met; what the children would learn; what your aims were… It was the exact opposite of how we worked at college. Freedom of thought and creativity was definitely out, a child could not be allowed to make a mental leap and connect a song I sang with something they’d heard about in another lesson, no, they had to learn something I said they were going to learn and nothing else. Plans could not be open-ended.
It’s got steadily worse because funding is now so tight that a school often can’t find the money to pay a visiting artist unless s/he comes with a ready made funding package from some outside source, so work in schools has almost dried up. I could definitely not just phone around as I did in 1978 and arrange to drop in for a morning or an hour.

And who suffers?
The kids, of course.

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